September 1815 Gale
Jefferson was at Poplar Forest on Monday, 4 September 1815 when he noted in his weather record that “at 2. oclock A.M. began the most violent storm from the N.E within the memory of man.” In a letter to Albert Gallatin, Jefferson compared the storm to a hurricane that had struck Virginia earlier in his lifetime: “it was such a wind as I have not witnessed since the year 1769.” He wrote that “it did however little damage with us, only prostrating our corn, and tearing tobacco, without essential injury to either.”
But it did have another effect. In his weather record, Jefferson noted that “about 60 hours after the commencement of the storm—that is, about two and a half days, or around the early afternoon of 6 September—“at least 100. sea swallows were blown up into Bedford & dropped on the farms alive but exhausted.”
By “sea swallows” he meant birds that are known today as common terns.
What was the storm that could sweep so many sea birds into Bedford County, more than 160 miles inland from the waters of Chesapeake Bay and almost 200 miles from the Atlantic shore?
Based on contemporary accounts, primarily from newspapers, the storm would now be classified as a hurricane. (People in the United States at the time were more likely to use the terms “gale” or just “storm.”) On 1 September, it was east of Charleston, South Carolina. The first high winds reached eastern North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia, about 11:00 PM on 3 September. The storm passed over coastal North Carolina on the 4th and then curved out to sea. Its winds, still at gale force, affected coastal areas of New England on 5 and 6 September.
In addition to “violent gales of wind,” the storm brought heavy rains to Norfolk and the North Carolina coast and tides as high as 6 to 14 feet above the high-water mark. Newspapers recorded no lives lost, but extensive property damage with fences and trees blown down, the lower levels of warehouses flooded, and industries such as saltworks and distilleries destroyed. “A number of vessels were driven ashore,” a Norfolk newspaper stated, “and the shores are covered with the ruins of houses, lumber, naval stores, flats, boats, canoes, hogsheads of sugar, rum, molasses, &c.”
For all its size and power, the hurricane was overshadowed by a larger one that struck New England later in the month. That storm crossed Long Island on 23 September and moved on to cause extensive destruction in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and particularly Rhode Island: at Providence, there was a huge loss of property and two people died. In a scene reminiscent of the arrival of the sea birds in Bedford County noted by Jefferson, the northern hurricane pushed seagulls inland at least as as far as Worcester, Massachusetts. The northern storm, the largest gale to strike southern New England in 180 years, affected a more densely populated region than the storm that hit North Carolina and Virginia, and made a deeper impression on history (see for example here and here).
We have not found any pictures of the North Carolina-Virginia storm. A picture by an anonymous artist depicted the effects of the New England hurricane on Market Square in Providence:
Oxford English Dictionary, “sea-swallow.”
David M. Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 (Boston, 1963), 77-81, 112-13.
Alexandria Gazette, Commercial and Political, 11 September 1815.
Norfolk American Beacon and Commercial Diary, 19 September 1815.
Alexandria Herald, 22 September 1815.
Norfolk Gazette and Publick Ledger, 21 September 1815.
|Poplar Forest, Bedford County, Virginia||AM||Common Terns||View Data|